Chinese Trawler Hits And Sinks Filipino Fishing Boat The sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese trawler has led to outcry in the Philippines and raised alarm over whether China is ramping up claims to disputed waters.
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Chinese Trawler Hits And Sinks Filipino Fishing Boat

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Chinese Trawler Hits And Sinks Filipino Fishing Boat

Chinese Trawler Hits And Sinks Filipino Fishing Boat

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

A Filipino fishing boat was anchored in the South China Sea when a Chinese trawler hit it, sank it and took off - a 22-man crew left for dead on the high seas. That collision earlier this month has raised alarms over whether China is ramping up claims to the disputed sea. NPR's Julie McCarthy visited the Filipino crew to get their story.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Captain, we're at the stern of your boat, and it looks ripped apart.

JUNEL INSIGNE: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Captain Junel Insigne stands beneath the dry-docked hull of the Gem-Ver 1, the Filipino fishing boat he piloted before it was sunk. The owner refloated and towed the 40-foot wooden ship home to the shores of the island of Mindoro. Children dash around the unrepaired deck as the captain describes how the boat came to ruin.

This is where the Chinese boat struck you.

INSIGNE: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: He's saying, yes, they came at full speed, which is why the back end of the boat is basically sheared off. Immediately, he said, this boat began to sink.

Insigne says he tried to move out of the way of the trawler with its steel hull, which distinguishes it as a Chinese ship, he says. It was nearly midnight.

INSIGNE: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "The cook woke us up and warned us. Everyone was shouting about the oncoming boat."

The captain swiveled left and saw the trawler just 25 yards away. Ship mechanic Jimmy Gordiones (ph) had been lying on the deck half asleep.

JIMMY GORDIONES: (Through interpreter) I saw the captain struggling to turn on the motor. I sprang toward the engine room, but right then the Chinese rammed us. And it filled with water.

MCCARTHY: He was nearly tossed overboard. The crew cried out to the Chinese for help in vain.

GORDIONES: (Through interpreter) They turned on their lights, saw us in the water and threw their boat in reverse, then killed their lights and left.

MCCARTHY: Captain Insigne and his 21 crewmates anchored on the night of June 9 in Reed Bank, a three-night sail from these shores in Mindoro. Reed Bank is a submerged feature of the Spratly Islands, a chain that lies at the heart of why the South China Sea is called a flashpoint. It's rich with fish and trillions of cubic feet of untapped natural gas. China has built airstrips, artificial islands and military outposts armed with cruise missiles in the Spratlys, antagonizing Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, who also claim the waters. Abandoned by the Chinese, his radio knocked out, the captain pinned his hopes on a ship in the distance. He ordered the mechanic's son and a rowing partner to make for its dim lights.

INSIGNE: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "I knew it was the Vietnamese. We had seen them earlier in the day fishing near us," the captain said. "We often exchanged cigarettes and coffee with them."

The pair rode for two hours to reach the Vietnamese. Language was a barrier, but mechanic Gordiones said his gutsy son communicated in pantomime that his ship was taking on water. The distressed Filipino fishermen had clambered into three rowboats that remained. Others clung to the bow. Three hours passed before the Vietnamese pulled the exhausted men aboard and greeted them, saying...

INSIGNE: Philippine, Vietnam, friends. (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: And shook hands. The rescuers made a cauldron of noodles and "laughed as they watched us eat," the captain says.

Did he ever share food or coffee with the Chinese? - I asked.

INSIGNE: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "Whenever we try to approach the Chinese, they tell us to leave. They signal get out and say, you can't be here."

China ignores a 2016 U.N. tribunal declaring invalid its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. Security analyst Renato De Castro says China is deploying tactics short of armed conflict to pursue its maritime claim.

RENATO DE CASTRO: You have intimidation. You have coercion. You have accidents like this. So it's really more of a psychological warfare.

MCCARTHY: President Rodrigo Duterte, looking to not alienate Beijing, calls the sinking a little maritime incident, noting no one died. De Castro calls that appeasement. The Chinese admitted to ramming Gem-Ver 1 but insist it was an accident. Both countries are investigating. Accident or not, deserting the Philippine fishermen has incensed Filipinos, especially the crew, who want justice. Captain Insigne stands beneath the bow of the wrecked boat and says repairs will take four months.

INSIGNE: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "We're very sad," he says. "Our livelihoods sank with this boat."

The fishermen say they plan to return to Reed Bank, but they're nervous. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Mindoro, Philippines.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILANTHROPE'S "MOONSHINE")

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